Every March, when ESPN Classic rebroadcasts the game, Smart becomes a student, trying to riddle out his waking dream. With 28 seconds remaining and the Orangemen leading by a point, Syracuse's Derrick Coleman clanked the first of a one-and-one, and Indiana had its chance.
With the first option in their motion offense, Alford, bottled up on the right wing, the Hoosiers looked inside to Thomas or Dean Garrett, the junior college transfer who along with Smart—who'd spent two seasons at Garden City ( Kans.) C.C.—had vindicated Knight's decision to recruit juco talent for the first time the previous year. Smart took a pass on the left wing from reserve Joe Hillman, then fed Thomas in the low post. But Thomas, pivoting to face the basket, couldn't sight the hoop through Coleman's long arms. So the senior coolly returned the ball to Smart. "The last option was for me to create my own shot," Smart says. "We were always taught, after you pass, don't stand. Move to another spot."
Smart's defender, Howard Triche, had turned his head slightiy to follow the entry pass to Thomas, and Smart took advantage by drifting deeper into the corner. Between Smart's springs (he had a 42-inch vertical) and reach (his sleeve extends 44 inches), Triche had already lost any chance to contest the shot. Smart was already in the air, about 17 feet from the hoop—"It seemed like I took a bounce and was floating"—and releasing the shot of which Thomas would say, "It was bucket."
By the time the ball had pillowed into the back of the net, with five seconds left in the game, Smart was well beyond the baseline, earthbound again, crouched and tensile. That's when noise returned to his eardrums.
The Final Four has featured other sudden Monday Night Heroes: Lorenzo Charles tracked one path, and the errant shot of North Carolina State teammate Dereck Whittenburg tracked another, until the two met like blips in a video game in 1983, when the Wolfpack upset Houston on Charles's last-second dunk. In 1989 Rumeal Robinson won a title for Michigan with a pair of free throws in overtime. But Smart did more than make the winning shot. He made his moment possible by fouling Coleman, a freshman and a 69% free throw shooter. He then preserved the result by intercepting Coleman's hurled inbounds pass three quarters of the court away as time expired.
Several weeks later, at the U.S. team trials for the Pan American Games, Smart found himself paired as Coleman's roommate. "For two weeks neither of us said a thing to each other about the game," Smart says. "Not a word." (Smart made the team, Coleman didn't.)
Smart can trace his choice of career to a moment remarkably similar to the one in New Orleans. In 1995 he was working as a counselor at Reggie Miller's camp in Indianapolis. Because a coach had been called away by an emergency, Smart was pressed into taking over an assemblage of eight-and nine-year-olds mired in last place. In Smart's first game on the bench, one of his new players failed to take a wide-open shot.
Smart called time. "Why didn't you take that shot?" he asked.
"My last coach told me not to shoot. Just to run up and down the floor and stay out of everyone's way."
"Your mommy and daddy paid good money to send you here," Smart replied. "You should be having fun. If you're open, I want you to take the shot!"